The Corner

Conservatives and the Deficit

While Tim Alberta’s whole article on the homepage is worth a read, I highlighted a portion of it on Twitter: the part where he explains that some members of the House Freedom Caucus are changing their view of how to evaluate fiscal legislation.

Consider Trump’s stated intention to seek a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure package soon after taking office. At a conservative forum one week after the election, Labrador told reporters that any such bill “has to be paid for” with spending cuts or revenues from elsewhere, “and if Trump doesn’t find a way to pay for it, the majority of us, if not all of us, are going to vote against it.” Otherwise, conservatives reasoned, it would be no different than the Obama stimulus package they once railed against. But their thinking has shifted in the weeks since. According to several members, there has been informal talk of accepting a bill that’s only 50 percent paid for, with the rest of the borrowing being offset down the road by “economic growth.” It’s an arrangement Republicans would never have endorsed under a President Hillary Clinton, and a slippery slope to go down with Trump.

A Freedom Caucus spokesman dismisses this passage on the ground that it’s “1 quote, from one member, in a hypothetical situation.” I see no quotes, but a reference to “several members” who are thinking along these lines.

The prevalent reaction to this passage from liberals on Twitter has been that Republicans’ stated fiscally conservative principles are hollow and deployed only for partisan effect. It’s a fair shot. Republicans used the deficit to argue against stimulus in the early Clinton years, said (to quote Dick Cheney) that “deficits don’t matter” when George W. Bush was cutting taxes, went back to citing the deficit against stimulus during the Obama administration, and now appear to be relaxing their strictures against deficit spending in time for a Republican president.

Quite a few liberals have gone a step further, however, and asserted that this shift among conservatives proves that their stated concern about the deficit under Obama was all along a mask for their racist opposition to a black president. This liberal argument seems to be pretty thoroughly refuted by the one I just mentioned: It doesn’t explain Republican behavior under President Clinton, whereas the partisan theory does. The belief that everything Republicans do can be explained by racism, though, seems to be pretty important to a lot of liberals.

In my view, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on deficits at exactly the wrong time. The Cheney view — that deficits don’t matter — was more defensible 15 years ago than it is now, given the trajectory of the national debt.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.